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These 4-0 Dolphins are different

For the Miami Dolphins, it is where dreams have come to die.

The tunnel in Rich Stadium is bleak and cold, and as the Dolphins have walked that gantlet in seasons past, it has been mean. Fans hang over the side, jeering and jiving, spitting and snarling, as the players make the lonely, uphill trip back to the locker room.

For the Miami Dolphins, it has been a walk of shame, a journey made with the bowed heads and hollowed eyes of beaten soldiers.

For five straight seasons, these walks have happened annually, each following the latest defeat at the hands of Buffalo. They were painful, ugly things to witness, parades of humiliation. More than anything, it was this trek that reminded the Bills and Dolphins of their relative stations in the NFL.

And it was obvious that until they made this walk as winners, the Dolphins were going to continue to be second class in the AFC East.

Sunday, the Dolphins finally stepped up. This time, the stands were filled with golden silence as they moved toward the locker room after a 37-10 victory.

"We've had so much frustration up there," Dolphins coach Don Shula said Tuesday. "This was a big step for us. Although we had been 3-0, two of those wins were on the last drive of the game. This was a measuring stick for us."

This time, the Dolphins measured up. Miami is 4-0, and two of the other four times it has started with that record it has finished in the Super Bowl.

Of course, Miami was undefeated going into Sunday's game, too, but there was a difference. The Dolphins hadn't played Buffalo, which meant the big kids hadn't gotten out of school.

Such is life when you have been Buffaloed the way Miami has been lately. If you were a Dolphin and you lived a bad life, the feeling went, you were sentenced to play in Rich Stadium again.

Since 1987, Buffalo had averaged 38 points per game against Miami. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas had forged their reputations against the Dolphins. Miami had won one of its previous 11 games against the Bills. It was getting to the point where you expected the Dolphins to break into a rash at the sight of chicken wings.

Then, Sunday happened. Then, 37-10 happened.

It was a different result out of a team that looks markedly different. The Dolphins may wear the same colors, and Shula and Dan Marino and John Offerdahl still get their mail at the same place. But there is a difference.

Finally, it appears, the Dolphins have reloaded.

Look at the Dolphins' offense, and it seems like something out of a Pro Bowl game. Marino must be the happiest quarterback in the league; not only does he have a new contract, he has a couple of new toys named Keith Jackson and Bobby Humphrey.

Jackson, in particular, is a key. If you think of Marino, you probably think of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton streaking downfield to catch his passes. But if you watched Marino in his early years, you know he has a special affinity for the position of tight end.

In his first four seasons, Marino threw 36 touchdown passes to his tight ends. The way it worked was Joe Rose deep, Dan Johnson over the middle and Bruce Hardy around the goal line. That commanded attention, which helped free up Clayton and Duper outside.

But in the past four seasons, Miami tight ends have had 10 touchdown passes total. Ferrell Edmunds has been hurt, or inconsistent.

So, when the Dolphins signed Jackson last week, Clayton and Duper should have jumped and high-fived, because the coverage on them just loosened. They didn't. The grumbling about money began almost immediately.

Sunday, however, Jackson caught four balls for 64 yards and a touchdown. Suddenly, he didn't look quite so overpaid.

There are other new faces on the Dolphins. Humphrey. Rookies Marco Coleman and Troy Vincent on defense. Safety Louis Oliver, whose personal reputation was stained in a loss at Rich Stadium, appears to be reborn.

They are 4-0, and their next three games are at home. This appears to be a team that could get hot.

Yes, there is a long road to go. Don Shula, cautious man, would tell you that. But the Dolphins finally appeared to have taken determined steps in the proper direction.

All along, you knew those steps would begin at the mouth of the tunnel of the stadium of demons.

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